Learn–and Avoid–Those Who Demonstrate Sociopathic Behavior

April 4, 2016

If you keep up with the news, you probably have heard the word “sociopath” batted around a bit more than usual.  It seems to pop up more these days given the increasing threat of terroristic acts and/or the current political climate.  Regardless, sociopathy, clinically known as Antisocial Personality Disorder, is something you would do well to identify and promptly avoid.  Like immediately. And, not to create undo fear, but, if the current statistics on sociopathy are correct (they certainly appear credible given they appear in the most recent edition of the mental health diagnostic manual), at least one out of every 100 people exhibit behaviors that would qualify as sociopathic (behaving without a conscience and without regard for others).  The numbers quoted in some publications go as high as one in every 25 people.  Once you recognize what that kind of individual looks like, the chances of you being taken by such an individual decreases significantly.

A good number of clients seeking mental health therapy do so after a run-in with a sociopath.  Another term you may have heard of is psychopath.  Also referred to as psychopaths (there are a few differences), these individuals are highly manipulative.  They can cause quite a bit of human (and animal) damage in addition to the sensational acts we see after a school shooting, serial killings, or Ponzi scheme plots.  The fallout is most notably described in my office as physical abuse, sexual assault, financial devastation, or severe psychological “gaslighting” (staging events to convince someone else they are mentally unstable).

Antisocial Personality Disorder, sociopathy, is indicated in an individual 18 years of age or older if he/she demonstrates at least three of the following criteria, and demonstrated reckless behaviors deemed as conduct disorder prior to the age of 15.  To summarize, a person who is sociopathic routinely: 1) engages in behavior that could be grounds for arrest; 2) lies in order to profit and/or gain pleasure; 3) acts impulsively or does not follow through on major life events without regard for significant others, colleagues, or children; 4) demonstrates aggression or irritability to the tune of assaulting other people, including spouses and children; 5) exhibits reckless behaviors putting others at risk; 6) does not follow through on job or financial commitments to the extent that the job history is sporadic and/or child support is never paid; and, 7) demonstrates no regret, no guilt, no remorse after hurting others.  How do you know if someone feels no regret?  No guilt?  These individuals are highly manipulative, so how are we, those of us with a conscience, to know if we are getting sucked into something ugly?

In her book The Sociopath Next Door, clinical psychologist Martha Stout, Ph.D., lists 13 ways in which we can better protect ourselves from sociopathic individuals. My favorite is the “Rule of Threes”.  When entering a new relationship (romantic, friend, business), be aware that three broken promises, three lies, and/or three breaches of responsible behavior are red flags.  In other words, believe a person when they show you who they are. He/she will not change once you are married or he/she is elected into office.  One error is understandable.  Two is a big concern.  Three means you are probably dealing with a sociopath.  As one of my clients said recently, “Don’t paint the red flags green.”

Dr. Stout also warns that when you meet someone routinely described as “charming”, “charismatic” or “eccentric”, this is not always a good thing.  If you have met your “soulmate” who understands you like no other, proceed with great caution if at all.  He/she may not be who you think.

If you pity people easily and often, even if they routinely hurt you or others, it is time to take a deep breath and ask for help.  This is a hard one because our faith communities emphasize “do unto others”.  However, this mandate assumes “others” function with a conscience.  Dr. Stout states you do not have to act politely when it comes to a sociopath.  It has been written that even Jesus became very angry, flipping over tables in the temple when he saw egregious acts perpetrated on innocent people.  The moral?  Set healthy boundaries.  Sociopaths have no interest in your well-being.

I often work with clients on their standing and sitting posture.  Most self-defense instructors will tell you that the way in which you carry yourself tells a sociopath a great deal about the kind of prey you might be.  Even if your self-confidence is low, act “as if” you are a force to be reckoned with.  Otherwise, a sociopath will sniff you out in a heartbeat.  He/she may not beat you up, but I guarantee you will find your retirement account wiped out, or your “borrowed” car never returned, or your house destroyed.  It’s not pretty.

Individuals fitting the criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder do not always commit heinous crimes.  With that said, they can do a tremendous amount of damage in ways that do not grab headlines.  If you are unsure about a relationship you are pursuing or already in, talk to a professional who has studied this behavior and can help you distinguish between an unfortunate character flaw and borderline criminal behavior.  There’s no harm in asking for help.  You may very well find yourself wiping your brow in relief after you do.

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